The CFDA Talks US Immigration Policy’s Impact on the Fashion Industry

by Kristen Heinzinger

“Anyone who has ever set foot in the Garment District knows that immigrants help build our industry,” said CFDA president Steven Kolb at a press conference on immigration policy and its impact on the fashion industry. “Many designers took a leap of faith to build a name for themselves in the fashion capital of the world, and today, many are valued members of the CFDA, some who are here with us today.” In the crowd gathered at the CFDA Incubator were some familiar faces, including Dao-Yi Chow, Maxwell Osborne, Laura KimFernando Garcia, Bibhu Mohapatra, and CFDA chairwoman Diane von Furstenberg, who recalled her own journey to the US from Europe with “a suitcase of little dresses” to start a fashion empire. “Immigrants have been the heart of our industry,” she said. “They have built the largest fashion houses in America. Just listen to the mosaic of languages you hear in showrooms and backstage at fashion shows. Immigrants are American fashion. Today, entrepreneurs like me have no longer have the same opportunity in the US to succeed. It is more challenging to hire and retain foreign talent.”

It’s no news that since President Trump took office, scrutiny of US immigration policy has intensified, particularly its impact on the economy. To better understand how current policy affects the fashion industry, the CFDA and FWD.us surveyed designers and employees in the fashion industry on the impact of immigrants on their companies and the problems current policy creates, and released a white paper with a few solutions. Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, explained that two of the largest issues the fashion industry faces are access and retention of foreign-born top talent and the high cost and difficulty of the US immigration system. Almost half (45.45%) of those surveyed agreed that uncertainty with the immigration system has impacted their ability to recruit foreign talent and/or students, while all agreed or strongly agreed that they needed more resources to educate them about navigating the current immigration system.

As for the proposed fixes? Reforming and expanding the H-1B and O-1 high-skilled visas (and making the Optional Practical Training Program easier to access), creating a startup visa for foreign entrepreneurs, and establishing a process for working undocumented immigrants to earn legal status after passing a background check.

We’ve rounded up a few major takeaways from today’s conference, below.

  • 900 fashion companies are based in New York
  • Over 6% of the work force in New York City is in fashion (180,000 people)
  • It’s been five decades since there’s been a major overhaul of the immigration system
  • The last update to the high-skill immigration system was in 1990
  • 20% of the fashion work force in fashion (30,000 people) are undocumented in the US, and currently there is no way for them to get right with the law
  • NYC is the fashion capital of the world in terms of sales (larger than Milan, Paris, and Rome)
  • Fashion Week contributed over $900 million to NYC (more than the NYC Marathon, US Open, and the Super Bowl)
  • 40% of FIT’s students are international
  • Over 12% of Parsons’ students are international
  • 60% of New Yorkers are either immigrants or the children of immigrants
  • The Center of American Progress noted that in 2013 immigrants added $1.6 trillion to the total US GDP
  • It would cost New York City and State nearly $800 million in tax revenue to deport undocumented immigrants and the loss of 340,000 jobs (more than the jobs lost in the 2001 and 2008 recessions)
  • Undocumented immigrants contribute $793 million annually in state and city taxes, and would contribute an additional $176 million if they were able to secure a pathway to citizenship

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